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Cell Phone Buying Guide – Carriers, Features & Contract Specs

By Sandra Parker

choose the right cell phone for your needsChoosing the best cell phone is largely a matter of personal preference. Of course, you need a phone that performs the tasks you want, but there are many handsets with very similar capabilities. More importantly, you must choose a carrier before you simply decide that you need an iPhone or a Blackberry. And since features vary between carriers – such as contract length and available technology – it’s crucial to first determine your needs.

Choose Your Carrier

There are two network systems that cellular carriers use to provide you with the ability to call your friends, surf the net, and play Angry Birds: Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) and Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM). Even though both technologies allow users to make calls and transmit data, they do it in different ways, which is what prohibits Sprint phones from working with AT&T’s service, for example, and vice versa.

The major U.S. carriers include:

  • Verizon Wireless
  • AT&T Mobility
  • Sprint Nextel
  • T-Mobile USA

There are many other carriers available in addition to these four providers. Smaller carriers, such as MetroPCS and U.S. Cellular, can be viable solutions if you are searching for a new company to work with. Currently, AT&T and T-Mobile use GSM, while Sprint, Verizon, and many smaller carriers (including MetroPCS and U.S. Cellular) use CDMA.

The main consideration when choosing a carrier, other than price and handheld selection, is coverage. Generally speaking, CDMA coverage is very strong in the United States, especially in rural areas, but GSM is the giant when it comes to being a globetrotter, especially in Europe. The other advantage of GSM phones is that they use SIM card technology, which allows you to switch phones more easily.

With that in mind, if you have a travel-laden schedule – or you simply enjoy upgrading phones frequently – you might consider sticking with a GSM networked carrier. However, if you plan on staying within the United States or live in a rural area, then CDMA is a great option.

If you plan to do some moderate international travel, you may want to investigate the possibility of acquiring a CDMA phone that has GSM capabilities. These are few and far between, but they do exist.

cell phone user

Pick a Cell Phone

Handsets vary widely, from those that are feature-rich, to simple, basic models. Ultimately, the phone you choose comes down to which handset will offer the best combination of features, performance, and design for your needs.

Important Cell Phone Features to Consider

1. Organizer Functions
Even some of the most basic cell phones offer some type of organizer. On many phones, this consists of a calendar, alarm clock, stopwatch, and calculator. Higher-end phones often include more options, such as the ability to sync with your Outlook calendar and contact lists, as well as voice-commanded appointment settings. Other models may even offer applications such as a compass or a thermometer.

2. Calling Features
Some handheld devices have a limit on the number of contacts you can add, while other phones let you add as many as you want, and can even make calls based on spoken commands. If you have the need for a speakerphone, consider getting a full-duplex speakerphone, which allows both parties to talk simultaneously. You should also consider coupling this technology with dual mics so that you can dampen background noise via active noise cancelling technology.

3. Web Browser
Web-enabled handsets allow you to surf the Internet wirelessly – some do it utilizing Wi-Fi hot spots, while others depend on using the carrier’s network. Keep in mind that while many websites use technology that allows them to be displayed properly on a mobile device, others do not. Larger high-end smartphones eliminate this limitation by offering users the ability to browse using full HTML technology. Additionally, some phones can be enabled as a wireless hotspot, so you can connect your laptop and get a wireless network signal anyplace you get a cell phone signal. However, most carriers charge a premium for this service.

4. Messaging and Email
Messaging takes on many forms: You can text, send pictures, send and receive emails, and even chat using services like AOL and Gmail. Most phones can text and send basic images, but if having email access is important, you might want to spring for a higher-end smartphone. These phones can sync effortlessly with a wide range of web servers to bring your emails to your wireless device. Remember, however, that messaging will cost you a boatload unless you tie a data plan into your cell phone service plan.

5. Camera and Video Recorder
Having a high-resolution camera integrated into your cell phone used to be a luxury, but is now commonplace. A few models still have low-grade VGA resolution, but most phone cameras now have a resolution of three megapixels or more, which offers good quality. So instead of worrying about finding a phone that integrates a camera, you should determine whether you need extras, such as face detection, panoramic modes, zoom capabilities, and flash.

6. Memory
For basic models, the internal memory capacity really isn’t much of a consideration, but for multimedia smartphones, the memory capacity is the lifeblood of its performance. For the best experience with a multimedia phone, make sure your phone has plenty of storage space. Having expandable memory via an external memory card is ideal.

7. Push-to-Talk
This is a walkie-talkie-like service that lets you immediately connect with individuals or call groups without using any allotted minutes, which is especially useful for business users who need instant contact with their colleagues. Many carriers still do not offer this feature, but if it is important to you, be sure to select a carrier that offers the service, as well as a compatible phone.

8. Bluetooth
This feature allows you to connect your handset to a bevy of wireless devices, such as headsets, your car’s stereo system, and more via low-frequency radio waves. Many Bluetooth-enabled phones also allow data to be exchanged with other Bluetooth-enabled devices without using minutes or data allotments in your service plan.

9. Multimedia Options
I use my cell phone to manage my emails, send texts, and make calls. But I also use it to manage my music library, view live TV, and post Facebook updates. In order to do that, I need a multimedia device. Carriers offer many different multimedia options, some costing more than others, so if there is a solution you need, don’t be afraid to ask.

10. Applications and Games
Though almost all cell phones support games, not every model comes with games integrated into its operating system. If a phone does not come with games, you’ll have to buy them for a few dollars apiece, and your selection will vary according to carrier and handset software. GPS with directional services is another increasingly popular feature – some phones integrate this feature, while others require that you download a third-party application. Regardless, you need a multimedia-enabled phone to utilize GPS.

Review the Contract

Before you sign on the dotted line, double-check the contract and make sure you understand all the provisions of the service you will receive.

  • Determine whether your carrier allows a grace period to “test drive” the service, and verify the length of your contract, as well as whether it auto-renews, and when.
  • Understand how many minutes your service plan includes, as well when the minutes are metered. Also, know when your unlimited minutes start and stop (usually on nights and weekends) in order to prevent overages.
  • Ask your carrier to clarify which extras are included in your plan, and which you will be charged for, such as activation, international calling, overages, and 411 information calls. Also, make sure to ask if your carrier charges for roaming.
  • If texting and other data services are essential, make sure that your plan includes a data package. Otherwise you’ll be charged on a per-use basis, which can be extremely expensive.

talking on a cell phone

How to Get the Best Deal on a Phone

Cell phones are generally not cheap, but by planning carefully, you can score the best available deal.

1. Check for Discounts With the Carrier
Being a new customer allows you to get the best deals on handsets via new customer discount plans. However, if you’re a current customer, ask your provider if any deals are available if you wish to upgrade your handset or change your plan, and find out how often you can do this. This is important, as carriers often limit the number of times you can receive a rebate against the purchase of a new phone.

Also, remember that some carriers charge an upgrade fee even if you’re eligible for a rebate – and most rebates don’t cover the entire cost of a multimedia-enabled device. While you don’t have to buy a phone that comes with rebates (doing so will mean a new contract), it can result in less expenses in the long run.

2. Check for Discounts With Third-Party Retailers
When searching for a deal on your new phone, don’t limit yourself to buying from the carrier’s outlets. You can buy phones for just about any carrier from retailers such as RadioShack, Best Buy, and Walmart, as well as phones that are not affiliated with any carrier whatsoever. Going this route can offer a couple of advantages: Not only may prices be more affordable, but you might find models not sold by a carrier. Just be sure that your carrier supports the phone you want.

3. Check With Used Equipment Sites for Discounted Equipment
Sites such as eBay and Craigslist can be a great resource for gently used cell phones, but keep in mind that if there’s an outstanding balance tied to the number, the carrier won’t activate the phone. And you always take the risk that the phone you purchase simply doesn’t work.

4. Consider Buying an Extended Warranty
If you’re prone to losing your phone, consider an extended warranty from a provider like SquareTrade in case your handset is lost, stolen, or damaged. Some carriers also offer roadside assistance services in case you need help while driving.

5. Skip the Insurance
In most cases, cell phone carriers not only charge you a monthly premium to subscribe to their cell phone insurance plan, but also subject you to a deductible that you must pay when you exercise your option to get a new phone. Although buying a new phone can be expensive, statistics have shown that buying into your carrier’s insurance coverage is usually more expensive in the long run. Skip this program and put the monthly premium amount in a savings account in case you must purchase a new phone.

Final Word

Though it is becoming increasingly rare, some smaller, regional carriers may charge for roaming. Nationwide roaming has become the norm, but don’t take it for granted and be sure to check your contract. You may also want to consider shared or family plans, which allow you to sign up under one master account and share your anytime minutes and data allotment with your family or friends with additional lines. Prepaid plans may also be worth considering – this way, you can avoid the need to sign a contract, and are free to switch carriers as soon as your prepaid service period expires.

What carrier and device do you prefer?

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Comments

  • http://www.moneylifeandmore.com/ Lance@MoneyLife&More

    I have AT&T because I’m on my parents’ family plan. I just got a Samsung Galaxy II Skyrocket and managed to negotiate to get it for free and they waived the upgrade fee. I actually did a post on it over on my blog.

  • Veronica @ Pelican on Money

    I’ve been on a prepaid month-to-month plan for over 2 years now and it’s been working wonderful. I’m not a huge fan of doing a whole lot on the phone other than text and prepaid phones are perfect for texting.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Liz-Leyden/100003766056570 Liz Leyden

    I’m amazed that you completely skipped prepaid cell phone carriers. I’m a light user, and I’ve been prepaid since 2006. I use Straight Talk (sold by Wal*Mart). Unlimited talk, text, and web for my Motorola Flipside costs $54/month.

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